Philharmonia Orchestra/John Wilson – Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus [Simon Butteriss, Toby Spence, Aga Mikolaj, Alan Opie]

Johann Strauss II
Die Fledermaus – Comic operetta in three Acts to a libretto by Carl Haffner & Richard Genée after the play Le Réveillon by Henri Meilhac & Ludovic Halévy [sung in an English translation by John Mortimer, with English surtitles; semi-staged performance with narration by Simon Butteriss]

Dr Blind, a lawyer – Simon Butteriss
Gabriel von Eisenstein – Toby Spence
Frank, a prison governor – Alan Opie
Rosalinde von Eisenstein – Aga Mikolaj
Adele, Rosalinde’s maid – Malin Christensson
Prince Orlofsky – Pamela Helen Stephen
Dr Falke – Jacques Imbrailo
Alfred, a tenor – Pablo Bemsch
Adele’s Friend – Rebecca Moon

Philharmonia Voices

Philharmonia Orchestra
John Wilson

Simon Butteriss – Director & Narrator

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 27 April, 2014
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Johann Strauss II (1825-99) The facts are these:

  • On this Sunday-afternoon the Philharmonia Orchestra presented Johann Strauss II’s popular operetta, Die Fledermaus
  • John Wilson’s conducting was stylish and affectionate throughout, doing the music proud, the pit-sized Philharmonia enjoying itself, and we began with a lively and swaying Overture
  • Simon Butteriss’s narration, replacing what can be tedious dialogue, provided witty links, was delivered with panache by the author himself, playing the barrister Dr Blind (rhymes with ‘sinned’) dressed in full courtroom regalia; his words were updated to include “pleb” and Nigel Farage (a French Connection); perhaps too predictable
  • The story itself (with a frisson of Freud) is fun in its interrelationships, disguises, deceits and various shenanigans, clearly described by Butteriss aided and abetted by blood-red English surtitles, and sung in that language, too, John Mortimer’s translation of the libretto working well
  • Costumes looked good, and props consisted of two chairs
  • The singing was splendid, Pablo Bemsch suitably seductive, Toby Spence virile (good to see him fully recovered), Aga Mikolaj was sweetly engaging, and Alan Opie (as he always does) stole every scene that he was in, and without really trying
  • Strauss the Younger’s charming score, full of memorable tunes, was given a tenderly lyrical and champagne-fizzing outing.

    But, m’lud, there was a serious problem! The singers were amplified! So, they – trained to project, mind, and never fear that the RFH has such an immediate acoustic in which the smallest detail travels effortlessly – were often overloud and shrill (even more so in duet or more), the orchestra sometimes relegated in an unnatural balance, but there were inconsistencies of volume within all this anyway, together with some ‘thunder’ and scrapings that were a result of the head microphones being in contact with those wearing them. Twelve microphones for the 30-odd party-guests Philharmonia Voices (fewer than listed) seemed like overkill, but maybe the performance was also being recorded; it would stand up well, when properly balanced, in the catalogues. Rosalinde’s ‘Czárdás’ (Act Two) was a highlight, seemingly sung in German and certainly in darkness. Pamela Helen Stephen’s he-she-or-it Prince Orlofsky was especially badly treated by the electronics; dominating abrasively. And Jacques Imbrailo has a resonant enough baritone that needs no exaggerating.

    What of Act Three, I hear you ask. I can’t tell you. However pleasing the music, and excellent the performance, there is only so much artificially pumped-up sound – edgy, too loud and enlarged; batty really – that one can take. I have heard worse than this, but such boosting simply wasn’t needed and it detracted from the many positive aspects. I left at the end of Act Two: chacun à son goût.

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